(This story happens concurrently with the end of "A Long, Difficult Path", and is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Fletcher emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines, as well as part of the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see listings for related stories.)
As much as elves love their gossip, the unraveling of a lovemating is never an easy thing to listen to. Not to One-Leg’s ears, at any rate. It was clear where things were headed, and he had no interest in joining the other lookers-on no doubt gathered in the center of the Dentrees. He stayed rooted in his den until, when he could take no more, he cut through Blacksnake’s den and started walking away from the place.
He walked as fast as he was able, preferring the feel of his own muscles moving to that of calling Longtooth over to come do all the work. A word had been haunting him since the latest council. He’d tried to drown it out with True Edge’s wine. He’d tried to grind it away in Starskimmer’s furs. It was on his heel still. He was eager to lose it in the trees between his home and the next catch of human words.
Leashed. Willow said she was being leashed.
He didn’t get far before the raised voices stopped. He looked back and spied Willow moving up the Mother Tree. As she reached for a limb, she spotted him. She glared at him through eyes that held only fury and pain, and then she was gone.
One-Leg kept walking. He didn’t notice himself changing direction, and he was somewhat surprised to find himself in a clearing that used to be a kind of sanctuary. His and Doeskin’s private little love nest. With effort on his staff, he sat down. Maybe he could lose the word in the memories of his departed lovemate.
But instead the word found him, and got him by the throat. He felt his facefur fall away, and the lump of skin beneath his knee burn from spirit pains and freshly burst blisters. The scent of pus, and too much sweat from too little effort filled his nostrils, and so, too, the smell of leathers that had been crafted by Doeskin herself. And it was not that brown-haired beauty that his memory saw…
One-Leg barely scented them coming above the stink of his own body. Beesting caught sight of him, then Bearheart, and they took up a sudden conversation about nothing. Dagger would not even look at him. The trio had made no secret of their doubts about One-Leg. They weren’t nearly the only ones, just the loudest and least subtle. Frequent hunt-mates before his injury, now they were the ones most willing to smack him down to make a point about his diminished value. They had gone as far as to form their own, smaller, hunt team, one safe from the reckless, weakened fool they saw him to be. And in it they could wait out the time until One-Leg would be left out of hunting entirely. To them, he had lost all rank with them the day he lost his leg, and in their makeshift pack, he would never have any place at all.
Off they went on their next grand adventure, and they were making a show of leaving him out. And he could swear that the twitches and itching in his ghost leg were getting worse just from them being there. So much so he couldn’t stand up to face them eye-to-eye if he wanted to. Held down by himself, One-Leg sat there and took it. Too proud to cry, he gave them all a look that held only fury and pain.
The salty smell of real tears broke the spell. He saw the world as it was again. He asked himself if he was any different from Dagger. Here he was, setting forth on another grand adventure while one of his own lay buried under the weight of a place she could not leave. And of course, he-- unlike her-- was perfectly free to be outside all by himself to feel rotten about it.
One-Leg sat there, trembling in stone silence, for some time before he felt the mental touch of the tribe’s glider. Kestrel was seeking him out, a wordless image of the word hunters gathering for their goodbyes. He tried to compose himself. But why? Why not just give words to this? Could he if he tried? His own wordless send—an impression of I’ll catch up-- was all he could do.
The night's ride seemed longer than usual. Beetle knew that her heart was both heavy and full... the past few nights had been lonely and tense. And the argument earlier in the evening had only added to the feeling of loneliness. The only thing keeping her moving was the conversation with her father. He had given her hope that she and Willow would be reconciled, but that some time was needed. This journey was certain to provide that time. The plan was to travel the length of the Braided River. They would spend a couple hands of days observing the humans they found using the various waterways before making the long journey back to the Holt.
Normally the small group had fun together as they rode, but tonight, each of them was quieter than usual. Kestrel, Moss, and Rainpace had gone ahead of them to scout around their first destination. Evervale had said little, but at one point she had confided to Beetle that she, Pathmark and Longshot had spent most of the previous day awake. That Evervale was tired made sense. One-Leg's silence was more concerning. Normally he was full of information or stories. Tonight, nothing. Beetle wasn't sure, but he seemed to be burdened somehow.
It worried her. She knew from hours spent working with him and from time spent observing the humans with him that he was not given to long bouts of quiet reflection, at least not while in the company of others. Something was eating at him, she knew it. But what? She wasn't comfortable just asking him, not now. It just didn't seem like the right time or place. And Beetle wasn't sure she was up for a conversation yet anyway.
Hours later, the journey did not seem to be improving. Tensions were high. Even Evervale was on edge. Maybe it was Fletcher's passing. Somehow, Beetle doubted it. She knew why she herself was on edge--she had to wait until they returned to approach Willow and try to make amends. Every moment that passed, Willow might still be alone and angry. And Beetle didn't know what that might do to her lovemate. That was what bothered her the most--the not knowing. Willow had shared that she felt trapped. Beetle could not recall a time she had felt that way. Even after she had almost killed herself with the explosive experiment, she had been permitted to continue her work... as long as she was careful.
But Willow... free-spirited, fun-loving, bee-charming, loving and happy Willow... was trapped. And Windburn, and apparently the rest of the elders, hadn't even cared to hear her or to see how it was affecting her. Beetle was fairly certain that it wasn't even about unwrapping Brightwood as much as it was about the closer boundaries placed on her lovemate. Before Greedygut, Willow had been constrained only by the Thornwall. She had been able to come and go from the Holt the same as the rest of the tribe. As long as she had someone with her, she had even been permitted to leave the Thornwall.
Since Greedygut had almost killed her, though, Willow had been ordered to stay at the Holt unless she was accompanied. What about her privacy? What about the need to be free? Wasn't she a member of the tribe? Why did she have more boundaries than others? Even though Willow had new responsibilities as a healer, Beetle thought that Willow still deserved to be treated like any other member of the tribe. None of the other magic-users had such constraints.
She looked ahead to Evervale. The red-haired plantshaper was the youngest member of the word-hunters. She was a magic user. She was permitted to come, to risk her life--because she had asked to. Willow had asked -- and been rejected. True, Evervale was useful--she created hiding places they wouldn't have otherwise, but Willow would have been useful, too!
Beetle felt tears spring to her eyes. Why was she here? Why had she left the Holt knowing that Willow couldn't? She knew it was only because Willow would have been angry at her if she had chosen to remain behind. Beetle could almost hear her, 'Just because I rutting can't leave this place doesn't mean you shouldn't. Don't let me become your leash!' It wasn't fair. She didn't want to be out of the Holt, but Willow would be mad if she stayed. And yet Willow was likely just as mad at her for leaving.
Beetle shook her head and rubbed at her eyes. Her head hurt.
"Let’s hear it,” One-Leg asked from behind her, the first sounds she’d heard him make.
Hearing his voice startled her, but she masked the movement by running her hands through her short hair. Taking a deep breath, she responded, "Hear what?"
“That look you just gave Evervale,” he replied curtly. “The one I could see from the back of your head. If you have something to say to her, say it.”
Beetle shook her head. "It's not her, really."
One-Leg's look told Beetle he wasn't buying it, but what could she say? That she was worried about Willow? That she felt guilty for being out here when Willow was tied to the Holt. How she was miserable with concern that Willow wouldn't want anything to do with her ever again? Not to mention, One-Leg had been silent the whole journey as well. Something was eating at him as well.
One-Leg cleared his throat, and she knew he was waiting for an answer. She sighed, then slid off Rooter and began walking beside her wolf friend. A moment later, she stopped, then plopped down into a seated position. Rooter stopped walking, whined a little, then moved to curl up behind her. Beetle leaned back. She felt the tears well up and spill over, and she was vaguely aware of One-Leg dismounting. A moment later, Evervale joined them.
Beetle wiped her eyes again. "I'm sorry," she began. "This trip is just... wrong somehow. It started off wrong--with Willow and I arguing, and I can't shake the feeling that things are not what they should be. I shouldn't be here right now. I should be with Willow. If she's stuck at the Holt, I should be, too. But... if I had stayed, she'd have gotten even more angry with me."
She took a deep breath. The biggest concern had been voiced. Now for the rest. "And you two... well, you've both been so quiet, it's been hard to relax. Instead of being in the Now, my mind is still stuck back at the Holt."
Evervale nodded. "I've been worried about you, Beetle." She moved to put an arm around her friend. "I don't know how you've managed. I mean... if Longshot and Pathmark and I had an argument like that..." her voice trailed off.
Fork Spring was where Kestrel spent the first dawn looking for opportunities for the hunters to spy on humans. She found a good spot while Beetle and her team were still sleeping, or trying to. The adjustment from nocturnal wolfrider time to the daylight hours humans were active in was always a tough one for Beetle, even under better circumstances.
Before midday, when Kestrel sent to Beetle, **From the Craft Trees to the Den Trees, that's all the time you have to get in place,** Beetle had run as fast as she could and dove into the Evervale-crafted hidey-hole just before the human couple arrived at the small clearing. Beetle hadn't had time to ask Kestrel what she might be observing, and the glider hadn't given her any indication. They were amber-hunters, male, and they looked young, probably a hand of years older than her little brother. And they looked happy. The sight of a happy, loving couple, even human, brought tears to her eyes.
Beetle remembered the day Willow had first really managed her powers. The relief and happiness on her face, her excitement. And the joining that followed. There were other memories, too... of their reunion after Beetle's shunning ended. Of the days together after Beetle finished whatever task had been handed to her that day. All those moments, happy ones, brought tears to her eyes. She missed those moments. Would she ever have another?
The couple was so close she could almost touch them. Beetle slowed her breathing, trying to make herself watch and listen. They were saying something, but she only heard Willow's words. Something Willow had said a while ago, after Greedygut almost bested her, **Patience to my impatience, calm in a storm,** Willow had sent. Beetle felt like Willow had been wrong. Beetle hadn't been patient with Willow, and she should have been. Willow had just been venting. She hadn't wanted, or needed, advice. She surely hadn't needed Beetle's words at that moment, even if they had been true.
More sounds. Something that sounded like, “Ina abārim ariāsh, ra’inta.” Beetle winced. She wasn't doing a very good job listening right now. She had too much on her mind, and her heart wasn't in it. She tried to listen, but the humans had stopped talking and were in an intimate embrace. Clothes were coming off. Beetle's mind returned to memories of happier times with Willow. 'That may be all I'm left with,' she thought sadly. 'Memories.' Though she knew what her father had said might be true, Beetle gave in to the feelings of loss and wept silently.
Later, Beetle watched as the human couple departed. She exhaled a breath of relief as they disappeared from view, and then she began making her way back to where the others were waiting. They'd want to know what she'd heard. They'd be disappointed.
Beetle mulled over the sounds the humans had made, but somehow the conversation between the obviously mated pair ran together. All she could hear was a replay of the argument with Willow followed by her father's words. She was clinging to Cloudfern's statement that there was still hope, but Beetle felt that each day she was away was a day further from hope. It didn't help that she wasn't sleeping--at least not well. The past night, she’d had a nightmare in which Willow, tied to the Father Tree, grew fainter and fainter as she plead with members of the tribe for help. She shook the thoughts of the nightmare away and hurried to the gather point.
When she arrived to where Evervale and One-Leg waited expectantly, she shook her head. "Nothing. I got nothing," she stated flatly.
Maybe Evervale would have better luck on her watch.
Evervale’s attempt had not gone any better than Beetle’s. It was hard to concentrate on the task at hand when her hunt-partners were so obviously distracted. The youngest word-hunter spent most of her time in the hidey-hole worrying about her own safety.
Moss’ team had been somewhat more successful in their own attempts. Sometimes, you go out to fish, and there’s nothing to catch. While there were precious few words to pass around at the evening meal, she knew there would be plenty of leftovers. One-Leg slumped against a tree, plainly forcing himself to eat his share. Beetle wasn't eating at all. She had leaned listlessly against Rooter and was staring upward into nothing. Kestrel looked too worn out from flying around all day to eat much of anything. Rainpace sat near to her, trying to ignore the gloom in the air. Moss was sitting with them, but eating in silence. She wished they could have a fire, but she knew it was too dangerous in such close proximity to humans.
The musician looked around with calm purpose. “You lot might as well go home if you can’t get your heads in the game," he sighed. “I’m not unfeeling to what’s going on among your team, but if we come home empty-handed, how will that make anyone here or back home feel any different than they do? Who would failure benefit?”
“My head is in the hunt,” Evervale countered. “But I… I can’t do this alone.”
“Well said,” Moss replied. “I’d rather we all keep trying. But doing so means we all need to focus on the Now, and what’s going on along these foothills. There’s too much at risk if we make a mistake.”
One-Leg snorted derisively, which caught Evervale’s attention. As she looked at him, and he at the ground, he declared, "Stay or go, right now it doesn’t much difference to me,” he declared.” I don’t have much taste for this work right now.”
Kestrel sat up, no longer eating, and looked at him. "What's gotten into you? You were one who thought this was a grand idea, and now you're going to up and give up? Why? What's eating at you?"
One-Leg scowled at her. “Why waste the breath it’d take to tell you? We all know the only words that are worth their spit anymore are the ones that come out of Farscout and Cloudfern’s mouths!” The elder male looked away. “The rest of us can go piss up a rope.” He shoved another morsel into his mouth, and chewed it.
Rainpace scowled back at him. “It’s not their fault Willow is where she is! All Brightwood’s family ever asked was that she stays safe, and spare a thought for someone else. But she didn’t. Or did you conveniently forget that Willow's tangle with Greedygut only happened two moons ago? Beetle was grounded for six moons for the pranks, and nobody threw fits about that.”
“Windburn told me how long my punishment would last.” Beetle muttered, her eyes still to the sky. “He didn’t set a time for Willow’s at all. Six moons? A turn? Two? Who knows? I think she has it in her head that the punishments won’t end until Brightwood is healed. And now he won’t set a time for that, either. What does she have to look forward to?”
Rainpace’s retort came as a complete surprise to Evervale’s ears. “It always comes back to making poor, put-upon, Willow wait, doesn’t it? And what’s so terrible about waiting? I didn’t just get my arm restored when I wanted it; I had to wait for the healer to be able to help me. Same for the ghost pains in his leg,” Rainpace said, gesturing at One-Leg. Then he turned back to that elder, and Evervale figured he wasn't content to let Beetle answer for the older elf. “If it was my mother, Doeskin, in that cocoon, a hair’s width from death, then Willow would have reason to snap at everyone-- because you’d never give her a moment’s peace. Would you? Any time she even thought about risking herself, you’d knock her to the ground with a blast hot air. She’d hardly see the outside of the cocoon den, much less the Thornwall. And woe to anyone who called you selfish, or who gave you the cold looks that Farscout has let slide off his back.”
One-Leg bristled, and glared back. “We share that loss, lad. I know what it's like to feel a love-mate’s death, and many other kinds of family. A soul-mate's too, but even that, I was able to heal from, or move on from at least. I don’t know what is to be caught where Farscout is, in some place 'a hair's-width' away from the deep wound of Recognition severed. Only his soul’s brother can.” He shook his head slowly, “I can’t fathom it at all. I’ve never been any good at helping Farscout and Cloudfern live with it, and I shards-well don’t know why they choose to stay put now that there’s a way out! I’ve done my best to respect it, all I can do is give them their due.”
One-Leg shifted forward slightly. “But I do know a thing or two about the trap Willow sees closed shut around her, and I was a leech-peckered fool for not seeing the likeness sooner!” The fingers of one hand curled up before his neck, and clasped into a fist at his jaw. “Just because no one else sees the rutting leash, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t truly feel one around her throat! I remember too well the sting of being told by too many to sit still and safe like a good little cub. Of knowing my tribemates were making their own minds up about what I could and couldn’t do. Of watching everyone else do what I wanted to do myself.”
His eyes moved back to the ground, and his voice was low and even. “Worse than that was the knowing that no matter where I did go, whatever I did do, there would always be this... thing... following me. A creeping, itching, feeling in a limb that wasn't really there. I know how sharp it bites to feel caged by your own body, hunted and hemmed in by something you never asked for.” His body was tensed like he was trying to exert control over every muscle and nerve. “Two turns and more this has gone on. In them I could have done something to aid her, at least. Let her know she wasn’t as alone as she thinks she is, if I’d known to say it when it might have done some good.” One-Leg looked away again. “Now, my words aren’t worth spit.”
Evervale sat, speechless, wondering how to respond. Rainpace rubbed his once-broken arm and found a further tree to sit by.
“Getting back on topic,” Moss interjected, “We can muddle out our next move in the morning, when we have clearer heads.”
The nights together following a successful hunt were the part Evervale enjoyed the most. The group would spend the time before bed composing rhymes to help themselves, and they elves they would teach, remember the words they had just learned. Sometimes they made up riddles to test one another. There had also been many jokes at the expense of the silly way Amber Hunters talked, like putting the words that describe another word after that word; Like saying “wolf hungry” or “shirt blue." They were worse than Quick Fang!
But well after dinner, there was only more silence. She almost wished her half of the team would choose to go home come the dawn, but these days, being home could taste just as raw as being away. Evervale decided that when they did return to the Dentrees, she would send to her mates and ask them to meet her alone, in a private place. She might need a happy moment to help her brace for the actual homecoming.
She couldn’t sleep any better than she had two nights before. The young treeshaper sat up in her travel furs, lost in thought. She didn’t need odd looks from Beetle to remind her how fortunate she was. She wasn’t the only one among the tribe with her kind of magic. Some day, however far off, there would be three. She’d had a teacher. In the pressing quiet, questions she’d been asking herself since the cry with Beetle asked themselves again. What if Cloudfern had come back from the Blue Beasts in wrapstuff, or not at all? What if magic had skipped over my grandmother, same as it did Mother? What if I had been the first plantshaper in an age, and with humans living in Eagle Bay? Would they expect me to build a Thornwall all by myself? Would the weight of everyone’s lives have been put on my back? And once the Thornwall was built, would I ever be allowed to walk beyond it? Could I be a word-hunter, or would Windburn say that the plantshaping was the only thing I was any use for? That I could never be away from it for fear something might get in? Would my every move be decided in council, and never by me?
She gave an equally sleepless Beetle a sideways glace. Would I hurt so bad I’d drive my mates away, too?
Willow seemed to believe dealing with Brightwood’s cocoon would solve all her problems. Evervale wasn’t so sure. She didn’t think One-Leg really meant the swipe he took at Brightwood’s brother and mate, not after what he said when pressed about it. But if he did, he was dead wrong; it wasn’t Cloudfern and Farscout set on clutching Willow tight to the Dentrees. That had been Windburn's doing. And some, True Edge especially, did not trust the strange, new power in their midst, and wanted it contained until they understood it. That wouldn’t change once Brightwood awoke.
Snoring One-Leg was wrong, too, to talk about his leg like he had in front of Rainpace, as if he was the only one who had any idea what it was to lose use of a limb or feel it hurting. She couldn’t see the trapper’s face, and wondered if he was out cold like Kestrel and Moss, or still awake too. If he wanted to talk. She had been, and still was, surprised to hear Rainpace's bitterness against Willow, since the two had been so close for so long. There had to be a reason, and she was tired of talking to herself. **Rainpace-**
The name had just left Evervale’s mind when a mental blast of shock rattled her. Kestrel burst out of her bedroll, sending a radiant wave of confusion and terror. Those who were sleeping shook themselves awake. When Kestrel could form words, they filled Evervale’s heart with dread. **Blacksnake-- Willow--She’s opened the cocoon!**
No one spoke. No one had to. As one, six elves scrambled to gather their gear and summon the wolves.